Amazon Wildfires Threaten Indigenous Peoples

Ongoing wildfires in the Amazon rainforest have been such in magnitude that they have raised significant environmental concerns, including threatening the Indigenous tribes residing in it. The fires have been raging across the Amazon, which spans many South American countries, although the focus has remained largely on the rainforest that is located within Brazil. In Brazil’s Amazon, it is apparent that these fires are a significant threat to indigenous tribes, burning close to or in territories reserved for them. Elsewhere, fires have been significant too. Bolivia has had 200,000 fires burning since August 27, and over $1 billion USD in timber has been destroyed.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has been a major proponent of further development in the Amazon rainforest. In Brazil’s Amazon, fires have been used to clear deforested areas during the winter, but the number of fires this August stands at 28,000, the most for an August since 2010. From August 15-20, fires occurred in 131 indigenous reserves, including 15 reserves of isolated tribes or tribes only initially contacted. More fires in these territories may be indicative of increased encroachment by loggers and others.

Fiona Watson, advocacy director for Survival International, an advocacy group for the rights of tribal peoples worldwide, said: “It’s clear to me that a lot of these fires are set off deliberately.” She also said, “The difference now is that with Bolsonaro’s message, the Amazon is up for grabs.” Tainaky Tenetehar, who is a coordinator for Guardians of the Forest, an indigenous volunteer force that patrols protected areas of the Amazon rainforest, said: “There are farmers with lands bigger than ours.” He also said “We want support from other countries that are sensitive to our case. It is very important for us because if we depend on our own country we are all dead, destroyed.”

The ongoing wildfires in the Amazon rainforest have received a considerable amount of media attention, which has been focused on the impact that this can have on the global climate. The fires represent an 85 percent increase in the number of fires in Brazil from the prior year and are largely attributed to the clearing of land for farming or ranching. The rainforest is known for generating 20 percent of the world’s oxygen supply and also has 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The number of indigenous tribes that are at risk with such fires is extensive. Furthermore, people at the ground level are more likely to face acute deleterious effects in relation to the wildfires in the Amazon rainforest and the ongoing trespassing and destruction of tribal lands.

The situation in the Amazon rainforest and the widespread negative implications means that there is a need for widespread policy changes in the various countries that contain the vast rainforest. Instead of improving upon prior policies, countries such as Brazil have moved in a direction further supporting unchecked exploitation of the rainforest, in the name of economic development. A combination of international assistance combined with strong local policies, including comprehensive engagement with some indigenous groups and far greater respect for indigenous lands and resources, is important to combatting the fires and preventing the rapid decline of the Amazon rainforest.